There is interest in moving towards a more circular model of textile production which reuses materials wherever possible, yet current recycling rates for textiles are very low. Despite a long-established national network of charity shops and increasing numbers of in-store recycling points in UK high street stores, three-quarters of Britons throw away unwanted clothing, rather than donating or recycling it.
What shoppers can do
So, can consumers reduce the environmental cost of fast fashion when out shopping? Choosing an eco-friendly fabric is complex as there are pros and cons to all fibre types. Garments which are labelled as being made from natural fibres are not necessarily better than synthetic, as fibre choice is only one part of a complex picture. Fibres still have to be spun, knitted or woven, dyed, finished, sewn, and transported – all of which have different environmental impacts.
For example, choosing organic fabrics is better than choosing non-organic fabrics in terms of the chemicals used to grow the fibres, but organic cotton still requires high amounts of water and the impacts of dyeing it are higher than the impacts of dyeing polyester.
Recycled content is often best of all, as it reduces the pressure on virgin resources and tackles the growing problem of waste management. For example, Patagonia was the first outdoor clothing brand to make polyester fleece out of plastic bottles. In 2017, it decided to rationalise its T-shirt ranges and from spring 2018, will offer only two fabric options of either 100 per cent organic cotton or a blend of recycled cotton and recycled polyester, recognising that even organic cotton has a negative environmental impact.
The Love Your Clothes initiative from the charity WRAP gives information for consumers on each stage of the purchase process, from buying smarter, to caring for and repairing items, to upcycling or customisation, and finally responsible disposal. Ultimately, the best thing we can do is to keep our clothing in use for longer – and buy less new stuff.